Anyone who has been keeping a close eye on us over at Picky Bastards will know how excited I’ve been about Arlo Parks. After randomly discovering her while down a YouTube rabbit hole in the latter months of last year, I picked the amazing ‘Hurt’ as my choice for one of our best of the month articles. I then highlighted Collapsed in Sunbeams as the album I was most looking forward to in 2020.
So why then, on my very first listen, did I feel so disappointed? Could it be that the huge amount of hype that Arlo had received in 2020 had been unwarranted? That the hugely anticipated album was set to simply fizzle out? Was it possible that this artist who promised so much had actually already released all of her best material and we were now getting some songs that shouldn’t have made it off the cutting room floor?
It turned out, after a few more listens, that the answer to all of those questions was a resounding no. But if there is any truth to any of them, it is probably the last one. I think my initial feeling of disappointment was at least partly down to the fact that, in ‘Hurt’ and ‘Black Dog’, Arlo had already released the two absolute standout songs on the LP. Which makes sense, obviously. They were a big part of the reason that the hype had grown as large as it did – both songs are simply stunning. But when I am really excited about an upcoming album, I usually ignore the singles so that I can take the record in as a whole upon release. The way I discovered Arlo made this impossible, and I had played those two songs to death.
There was a sense, also, in my first couple of listens, that a lot of the other songs seemed to blend into each other a little bit. Maybe they were a little samey. But all it took for me to get over that issue, and pretty much all my initial concerns, was a simple walk with some headphones in my ears and the album playing from start to finish. Yes, there is a consistent feeling across the music here – but that isn’t because Arlo is lacking in ideas or things to say. It is because she has dropped her debut album already knowing what her sound is, already aware of the message she wants to put out into the world, and already working as a fully formed artist. Turns out that this is a debut so accomplished that I perhaps couldn’t believe it at first.
Now, after a few weeks of almost constant listening, I am loving songs like ‘Green Eyes’ and ‘Just Go’ as much as any of the singles I’d heard before. Where things sounded similar at first, I now feel the nuances that each song is filled with. ‘Green Eyes’ follows ‘Black Dog’ on the tracklist and does some work in explaining the depression that ‘Black Dog’ focuses on. This newer song focuses on an early relationship of Arlo’s, showing a sadness that her partner of that time couldn’t get past how people judged her sexuality, but also demonstrating an understanding and empathy with her for dealing with those feelings. ‘Just Go’ then sounds like the cheeriest song of the bunch in terms of its instrumentation, making it standout from those around it, but it is still dealing with some intense emotion and an interesting look back at its writer’s past.
The slightly darker edge that shows up on ‘For Violet’ and ‘Eugene’ is important to this album’s success, too. Collapsed in Sunbeams is, in the end, an album about facing up to things. Whether these things are your own internal struggles, the difficulties those you love are facing, the fact that others haven’t accepted their truth at the same pace as you have, or the prejudices you face from society and the people in your life, Arlo’s songs deal with the reality of them and the personal triumph that can be achieved by tackling them and finding a way through.
In terms of these messages, and of its musicianship, this is an extremely mature album for a 20-year-old to be putting out at this point of her career. In final track ‘Portra 400’, Arlo repeats the line ‘making rainbows out of something painful’ – this is what she does on every song on the album.
This album is still growing on me every time I listen, too. I am listening to it while I write this review and, even as I write, I am realising another reason why I got stuck on the idea of consistency when I first listened to the album. These songs are consistently amazing – each and every one of them. What a debut.
Words by Fran Slater